Tag Archives: Jonathan Stroud

Book Review Saturday – ‘Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull’

This whole week has been a total write-off for me. I apologise for the dreadful lack of blogging, but for most of the past seven days I was either unable to sit in a chair for any length of time, and/or unable to focus on a computer screen, and/or struggling to breathe through a lungful of gunk, and/or incapable of thought or concentration or, indeed, semi-normal function for longer than ten minutes together. I caught some sort of virus from somewhere (I think I know where, next-door-neighbours’ little boy, but I’m not looking at anyone in particular) and it knocked me pretty much out. I haven’t been so unwell in a long time.

Lucky, then, I’d read this book just before the worst of my grippe struck, wasn’t it?

Image: mrripleysenchantedbooks.com

Image: mrripleysenchantedbooks.com

You may recall my review of the first book in this series, The Screaming Staircase, which I largely loved (though with a few important reservations); this book is similar, insofar as I loved it for the same reasons as I loved the first one, and hated it for the same reasons, too. There are improvements to be seen, most notably in the way George’s character is described; he’s still compared unfavourably to the ‘hero’, Lockwood, at every turn, but in many senses he is far more sympathetic (and more important, and – at one crucial juncture – far more heroic in his own right). However, we are still regularly reminded that he’s ‘ugly’ (how I hate that word), unattractive, and overweight. It’s not as blatant as the first book, but there’s still too much of it. Please, Mr Stroud, for the next book in this series, give George a break? Or at least give him a scene where he loses his cool and just tells the others to stuff it? Listening to them bully him is bad enough, but watching him take it without question is worse.

I also had the same issues with the cover. Lucy, a girl, narrates the whole story, but who’s on the cover? Surprise, surprise – Lockwood. A boy. Naturally. *insert eyeroll here*

Rant over. On to the good stuff – which is, basically, everything else.

I’m really enjoying the feel, and style, of this series so far. It’s quick-witted, razor-sharp in its dialogue, well plotted and addictive. The setting this time bothered me just a little; for some reason, I had read The Screaming Staircase as being set in an earlier age – perhaps an ‘alternative’ 1940s – but this book seems to be bang up to date, with characters wearing puffa jackets and Doc Marten boots, and the like. Parts of the setting seem so old-fashioned, in the best sense (‘ghost lights’ on the street corners like gaslights in Victorian London; rapiers at the belt of every ghost-hunting Agent; children being sent out to work instead of going to school), so it’s a bit of a jerk to read about modern clothing and some modern technology in the middle of all that. However, it’s not too hard to get your head around.

This time, Lucy, George and Lockwood are in the midst of a case when everything goes wrong (of course), and into the fray step Quill Kipps and his team from the Fittes Agency, who manage to save the day (and the skin of the members of Lockwood and Co) at the last moment. In a show of one-upmanship, the teams make a bet: the next time there’s an open commission on a ghost-hunting mission, they’ll both go up for it, and whoever ‘loses’ has to take out an advertisement in the Times declaring themselves to be infinitely inferior to their rival. Fortuitously, just such a case crops up almost straight away – the body of a long-dead (and much-feared) man, Edmund Bickerstaff, is to be disinterred, and those in charge of it need as many Agents as possible on hand to monitor things, just in case. So, our heroes and the Fittes crew throw their hats in the ring. During the course of the disinterment, everything goes pear-shaped (again), and George ends up making a big mistake – one that almost costs him his life.

When an immensely powerful artifact from Bickerstaff’s coffin then goes missing, the two Agencies pit it out to find it, both of them suspecting the other – and then the mysterious skull, which Lockwood has in his home (and which played a minor role in Book One), begins to speak to Lucy. This communication doesn’t resemble the way way ghosts normally ‘speak’ to the living, of course. The spirit attached to the whispering skull is actually talking to Lucy, taunting her, telling her secrets, giving her clues about the man it was when it lived – and, crucially, hinting that it knew Edmund Bickerstaff. Getting the others to believe this is happening is Lucy’s first challenge, and when she does, they have to decide whether to trust the skull, and how to use what it’s telling them.

This is all going on against the backdrop of the hot chase through the streets of London between the Agents and the relic-men and relic-women, those who steal artifacts (some of which are Sources, or focal points for hauntings) from burials for sale to the highest bidder, and the nasty habit some of them have of turning up dead, or the mysterious room in Lockwood’s home which he has forbidden George and Lucy to enter, and the dreadful pull of something called ‘the bone glass’, made from the stolen bones of seven dead souls, on George’s mind…

This was a great book, told well (though, perhaps, a little too long), with a cracking set of characters, including some new ones. It is funny and compelling and unique, and a whole lot scarier than the first one (which I found quite scary enough, to be honest). With my usual caveats about body-shaming, bullying and ridiculous covers, I heartily recommend it. They’re big caveats, to be sure, but they didn’t spoil the book for me.

Not quite, at least.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Lockwood and Co.: The Screaming Staircase’

I’m going to begin my review by saying I absolutely loved this book, with two exceptions. One of these things probably had nothing to do with the author whatsoever, but the other one most assuredly did. I’ll get to those issues in a minute.

But first things first.

Image: bookdepository.com

Image: bookdepository.com

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase is, apparently, going to be the first in a series of novels all based around – unsurprisingly – Lockwood & Co., a ghost-hunting agency in London led by the charismatic, raffish Athony Lockwood. Along with his colleague George Cubbins and their new recruit, the talented Lucy Carlyle, they set out to track down, trap and neutralise ghosts in the London area. This is no small problem: ghost infestations are endemic. For reasons which are (deliberately) left unexplained, about fifty years before the book begins an influx of Visitors, as the ghosts are called, starts to plague the people of England, and there are several ghost-hunting agencies in London, of which Lockwood & Co. is the smallest. The ghosts, which fall into categories and types (Type 1 being the least harmful, and Type 3 the rarest and most harmful to the living), take many shapes and forms and their reasons for coming back vary from individual to individual. Early in the book we see the intrepid Lucy and Lockwood tackling a ghost infestation in a suburban home which turns out to be far more complex and frightening than they’d bargained for, and the ghost – which they’d thought was that of a man who’d died accidentally in the house – turns out to be far older, and more vengeful, than they were prepared for.

In the course of trapping the ghost, Lucy and Lockwood manage to burn the house down. They barely make it out alive themselves. Naturally enough, this means that the business is now in trouble – the debt they face for destroying their client’s property will cripple Lockwood & Co. unless something drastic is done.

Step in Mr Fairfax, the owner of the most haunted house in England, who tells them he will pay them what they need to save their business merely by showing up… But what’s the catch?

So, among the things I loved about this book were:

The writing style, which was rich and densely populated with beautiful words, and every sentence was perfectly structured. I really enjoyed the dialogue, which was whip-smart and funny, and overall the reading experience was great.

The characters – in the main. I have some reservations, though, which I’ll go into later. I liked Lucy Carlyle, who was brave and resourceful and interesting, and who deals with the guilt from a previous case in which many lives were lost and for which she blames herself. I liked Lockwood, too, though after a while his louche self-confidence began to grate. However, I think there’s more to him than that; he has lost his parents, and we don’t know why. At certain points in the novel he seems to ‘space out’, as though his mind has frozen or he’s dealing with something deeper. I get the sense that the rakishness is covering up for something dark, and that’s intriguing. Of George, more later.

The world-building, which is essentially a version of our own world, but ever so slightly (and ever so interestingly) different. I had a few reservations in relation to the maturity levels of the characters (all of whom are supposed to be young teenagers, running their own lives and businesses and so on), but it was easy to put that aside.

The story. I loved it. I’ve read some reviews which have poked holes in the plot, and that’s fair enough. You could probably do that to every book that’s ever been published. Overall, though, I thought the story was engaging and enjoyable, tied up well, and importantly…

…The ghosts were proper scary. Now, to be fair, I could take fright at a badly-made sandwich, so you can take that with a pinch of salt. But I found them genuinely creepy, particularly the ones they encounter in Fairfax’s house.

However, let’s get to the bits I didn’t like so much.

Firstly, the cover of my edition has a very handsome illustration on it (see above) which depicts a slender young man carrying a rapier – the primary weapon against the ghosts, as they can’t tolerate iron – with a castle in the background. Presumably this is supposed to be Lockwood himself, as he is far too handsome and svelte to be anyone else. But the entire book – the entire book – is narrated in Lucy’s voice. Personally, this led to a bit of confusion as I read, because I was ten or twenty pages in before I realised the narrator was a female character. This irritated me. The cover gave me the impression that the narrator was male – that I was, in effect, reading the story through Lockwood’s eyes – but that wasn’t the case. Other editions of the book do feature a rapier-carrying female, too, but not the one I have. Lucy is brilliant and a very fitting carrier for the story, so the fact that the cover omits her drove me mad.

Of course, the author probably had nothing to do with this. Cover art is not normally something the author has any control or influence over.

But I also took major issue with the character of George Cubbins – or, rather, how he is described, discussed, and talked to and about by the other characters, particularly Lockwood. George is bookish, cautious, clever and likes to be prepared for all the jobs that the agency takes on. He likes to research. He enjoys understanding what the ghosts are, why they do what they do, why they haunt where they haunt, and so on. Essentially, he’s a nerdy academic.

But he’s also described – almost every single time he appears – as being fat.

Fat, and repulsive, and frighteningly unattractive, and cumbersome, and clumsy, and inefficient, and lumbering, and slow. The worst possible thing Lucy can imagine is seeing any part of his anatomy, even if only by accident. This is despite the fact that he is the most intelligent and – in a lot of ways – the most hard-working member of the group. He is constantly compared to the rake-thin, elegant and fashionable Lockwood (mainly because we are reading through Lucy’s eyes), and the comparison never favours George.

The author had every control over this.

George is the butt of jokes, both verbal and visual, and he is made fun of, taunted, and used as a punchbag by the other characters. This upset me, not only because I hate to see characters picked on as easy targets because of things like weight but also because it’s lazy; it’s a shortcut for puerile humour that takes no effort on the writer’s part. I hoped, right to the end of the book, that George’s role would be rehabilitated, but it wasn’t to be. Every bunch of intrepid children have had a fat member to act as the ‘comic’ foil, something which ignores the individual worth of the fat character themselves; George could have been, and should have been, so much more. Perhaps in future books he will come into his own.

So, take that as you will. I loved the book overall, and it’s one I’d recommend. It’s a great, rollicking story told with panache, and it has fantastic characters and a cracking plot. I’m looking forward to The Whispering Skull, the next in the series, and I’ll try to catch up with the other books in Jonathan Stroud’s back catalogue. I just hope he’s less sizeist in his other work…